Catholic schools in Australia, which educate about twenty per cent of the Australian school-going population, are private-sector schools. As such, they are substantially funded by a combination of grants from State and Commonwealth sources but have chosen to compensate for shortfalls in their operational expenses by charging fees. Successive Australian governments have for the past quarter of a century provided largely bipartisan support for the public funding of Catholic schools in Australia, yet the policy contexts in which this support has been given vary markedly. Prior to that, Catholic and other denominational schools were largely unfunded by the state, resulting in the near collapse of most non- Catholic denominational schools, when the Australian state entered the schools provision sphere in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Catholic schools survived and prospered during the ensuing century largely by importing many thousands of teaching religious, principally from Ireland, but the strain began to show after the Second World War, when Australia embarked on a major expansion of its immigration program, and religious vocations from Ireland and elsewhere began to decline.
The Australian Labor Party, for all kinds of socio-cultural reasons the major representative at the time of Catholic political interests, but split on the issue of state-aid, was keen to rebuild party unity and saw the public funding of non-government schools as the key to creating a dual system of education to meet Australia's schooling needs. It succeeded in doing this and in transporting itself to government by the pragmatic overcoming of the split and through a commitment to funding all Australian schools on a needs basis. Since the mid-seventies non-government schools have been the beneficiaries of a general resolution to the state-aid debate that has seen relatively little difference between both sides of politics on schools-funding matters and which has kept state-aid off the agenda of hitherto intractable political problems. However, recent trends in funding policy, vigorously driven by the Commonwealth Coalition government after 1996, with its pursuit of market-oriented policies in key social and economic areas, have fuelled the rapid deregulation of the Australian educational environment, starting with the rationalising of funds for government and non-government schools. At the forefront of such change, Catholic schools were regarded by the former Commonwealth Education Minister, Dr Kemp, as models of the future provision of Australian schooling, and as an example of the mutual obligation of the public and private sectors in relation to the provision of essential social goods and services.
Catholic Education in Australia must therefore serve two political masters for quite distinctive and different reasons, viz. the Common or Public Good on the one hand, and the notion of parental or private choice on the other. The notion of the Common Good is the most central and fundamental element in Catholic Social Teaching, adjuring Roman Catholics to move beyond a morality that is purely personal to include the social and structural dimensions of public life. Will it be possible for Catholic Education to reconcile these two evidently mutually exclusive principles, while striving to meet its own commitments to bridging the gap between funding and costs with fees in the additional context of maintaining its mission to make its schools accessible to all Catholics? Thus, Catholic schools in Australia find themselves a century or so after the cessation of state aid, and twenty-five years after its recommencement, at yet another crossroads, with a multiplicity of new factors to consider in terms of funding policy.
This thesis researches one way in which this multiplicity of apparently contradictory and mutually exclusive imperatives may agreeably be met in order to ensure the long-term viability of Catholic schools in Australia. It does so by investigating the proposal of the late Mr George Berkeley, a former Director- General of Education in Queensland, in his report on non-government schools in the Australian Capital Territory, which reads as follows:
In the longer term consideration needs to be given to some breaking down of the current dual system of government and non-government schools, and to the possible integration of non-government schools (particularly those serving similar populations as government schools) with government schools while still allowing the non-government schools to retain the important aspects of their special character. (Report to the Minister for Education and Training on Needs Based Funding for ACT Non-Government Schools, 1992)
The fact that virtually no consideration was given to this proposal, and that the Working Party set up to consider the Berkeley Report unreservedly agreed on all of Berkeley's other proposals, highlights two important anomalies that inhibit the development of state-aid policy in Australia, and which George Berkeley by his own admission was seeking to rectify once and for all. The first is to do with the enormously bifurcated (in terms of source) complexity of the schools-funding arrangement in Australia, in which the States provide most of the funding for government schools, and the Commonwealth most of the funding for non-government schools, thus making comparability of figures slippery and a cause for confusion and potential misinterpretation and division by government and non-government school lobbies alike. The second, connected with the first, derives from Berkeley's eagerness as a practising Catholic and a Director-General of Queensland Education to remove inter-sectoral disputes, and the potential for them especially before elections to become standard occurrences in the political and electioneering landscape of Australia.
While it could be argued that Berkeley stepped outside his terms of reference in bringing down his Report, his recommendation, particularly in relation to such a senior and experienced educational administrator to consider the integration model of schools, now well-established in New Zealand, could not be dismissed as easily as it had been by the working party set up to receive his Report and comment on it. Accordingly, as part of the research reported here, I travelled to New Zealand to examine in detail the conditions under which non-government schools in general and Roman Catholic schools in particular had been brought into the public sector in 1975 under a special agreement covered by an Act of Integration, which, among other things, protected the special character of each school, and to assess how that arrangement had worked.
From this core of information, I developed a series of categories of description, both positive as well as negative, in relation to responses to integrated schools that were put to a variety of persons critically influential in the schools-funding debate in Australia. Whereas initially there had been little or no interest, or otherwise hostility, engendered by the very idea of opening up discussion on a new mode of funding schools in Australia, this new approach, validated by the phenomenographic research method, was able to generate a considerable body of reason and opinion, initially in relation to why participants were so opposed to the idea of integration.
Such a strategy enabled me to address through the subdiscipline of Policy Sociology some of the deepest and most heartfelt misgivings of participants in relation to the integration proposal and, in addressing each one of them, to arrive at a series of proposals which would satisfy and eliminate such misgivings, should the general consensus about current ways of funding school education in Australia collapse or in some other way be found to be deficient. The opportunity or danger of such a thing happening has emerged through dramatic recent changes to the mechanism of funding government and non-government schools by the Commonwealth government, called the Enrolment Benchmark Adjustment or EBA, and which in effect has introduced an opportunity-cost factor to rationalise and follow the steady stream of school students away from the government and into the private sector. Additionally, the Commonwealth Coalition government has changed the basis of Commonwealth needs-based funding of non-government schools to exclude private resources as a basis of funding, thus advantaging a category of elite schools hitherto ineligible to receive substantial public subsidies.
Meanwhile Australian private schools, an increasing percentage of them new non-Catholic providers, now educate more than thirty percent of Australians as opposed to twenty percent a decade ago, fewer Catholics than ever before attend Catholic schools, and State governments, such as New South Wales, committed to preserving the quality of government schools, which are a ‘States’ right constitutionally, have cut their proportion of subsidies to the wealthier non-government schools in an act of evident retaliation. This development points to the reopening of the state-aid debate, the collapse of a bipartisan schools funding policy, and the need to review the assumptions on which state-aid to Catholic schools, at the very least, was commenced a quarter century ago. As a resolution to this problem, this thesis argues for the incorporation of Catholic systemic schools into an expanded and deregulated Australian educational public sector, as in New Zealand, and addresses in detail, some of the political and constitutional difficulties in doing so.